Why Chess Upsets Religious Fundamentalists
Jan 22nd 2016
Chess is a “waste of time” and causes enmity between players, according to the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh. It is therefore as much to be forbidden as more obviously sinful activities like indulging in alcohol or gambling.
His remarks, on a television show last year, resurfaced in the media this week as the kingdom prepared to host a tournament, and they were immediately rejected by a member of the Saudi chess association, who tweeted that the game flourished in the kingdom and would continue to do so. Because the cleric’s word were an off-the-cuff answer to a question rather than a formal decree, they are not expected to be enforced harshly.
This is not the first time that a spiritual leader has denounced chess as a distraction from religious devotions. An Italian sage of the 11th century, Saint Peter Damian, scolded the bishop of Florence for his weakness for the game. Chess was initially outlawed by Iranian Revolution which prevailed in 1979; however in 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini said it was permissible as long as it is not combined with gambling. However a contemporary Shia leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Iraq, has emphatically forbidden all forms of chess, whether played online or with physical pieces, and regardless of whether betting is involved.
Why do religious leaders feel threatened by chess? Perhaps because the game is one of those great, consuming products of human ingenuity. It flourished as a courtly pastime in Persia in late antiquity, having originated, probably, in India. After Persia’s embrace of Islam, it travelled through the Muslim world, reaching Spain via the Moors. Very soon after, it was flourishing on Europe’s westernmost fringes.
Words and artefacts provide a clue. The victor’s cry of “check-mate” is often said to originate with Persian words meaning “the king is dead” (shah-mata) but it seems that a better translation would be “the king is helpless.” The Persian word for an old form of chess, shatranj, surfaces in the Spanish ajedrez and the Turkish satranc.
Among the world’s finest chess pieces are a set discovered in the Outer Hebrides and probably made in Norway in the 11th century, from walrus ivory and whales’ teeth. (Most of these “Lewis Chessmen” are in the British Museum.) So chess must have reached Europe by a northern route as well as a southern one.
And in case you thought that chess was culturally Christian, because it features a mitre-topped, diagonally-moving piece which English-speakers call a “bishop”, think again. Only in the extreme west of Europe is the piece linked with Christian prelates; the other languages which call the piece a “bishop” are Icelandic, Faroese, Irish and Portuguese. Turkish and Russian speakers describe the piece as an “elephant” (slon), and several Latin languages use words derived from the Arabic for elephant (al-fil, Spanish alfil, Italian alfiere); Germanic languages call it a “runner”.
The real-life bishop of Florence, upbraided for playing chess, defended himself by saying that it was different from gambling: “chess is one thing and dice is another.” His critic retorted, rather strangely, that there is no real difference. Possibly a form of chess that did involve the use of dice existed at that time. A century or so later, the compilers of a new code of law code took a different view. They decided that a rule forbidding clergy from playing or even watching backgammon did not apply to chess, because chess was purely a game of skill.
Then, as now, religious professionals were wary of a game that transcended religious and cultural categories, and stimulated the brain rather than the soul.